Congress Probing Chief Counsel’s Office in Washington in IRS Scandal

by Eliana Johnson

Congressional investigators are probing the highest echelons of the Internal Revenue Service  in Washington, D.C., in connection with the agency’s targeting of conservative groups, according to documents obtained by National Review Online. Those documents, provided by an IRS employee who asked to remain anonymous, indicate that those being asked to provide computer data to investigators include the agency’s chief counsel, William J. Wilkins, and both of his deputies. The chief counsel is one of just two political appointments at the IRS made by the president.

Investigators asked the IRS to gather all data from the computers of several employees throughout the agency, and their request, according to the source, was broadened late last week to include over a dozen employees in the chief counsel’s office. They include chief counsel William Wilkins as well as his deputy chief counsel for operations, Christopher Sterner and his deputy chief counsel for technical matters, Erik Corwin. Investigators are also mining the computer data of two lawyers in the chief counsel’s office responsible for procedures and administration, and nine others who oversee tax-exempt and government entitites. In all, the hard drives of 19 lawyers in the chief counsel’s office are being turned over to investigators. 

The inspector general’s report says that Wilkins’s office was notified of the inappropriate targeting of conservative groups as early as August 2011, but does not indicate whether Wilkins was made aware of it. The IRS has said that Wilkins did not participate in the August 2011 meeting, and White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that Wilkins did not inform the White House of the discrimination against conservative groups. It remains unclear when Wilkins was made aware of the discrimination. According to the source, current acting IRS commissioner Danny Werfel recently hired Jennifer O’Connor, a partner at the law firm WilmerHale in D.C. specializing in litigation/controversy and regulatory and government affairs to serve as an adviser to Wilkins. 

Wilkins previously served on the Democratic staff of the Senate Finance Committee and then as tax counsel, before becoming staff director and chief counsel to the committee in 1981. His most high-profile case came during his time in private practice when, as a partner at WilmerHale, he represented Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church against allegations that it violated tax laws by hosting a speech by Senator Barack Obama. (The church, as a non-profit, is prohibited from advocating for specific candidates.) WilmerHale took the case pro bono due to its interest in the matter.   

Digital data are also being collected from employees across the country as part of the investigation into the scandal, again suggesting that the targeting of conservative groups extended well beyond the agency’s Cincinnati office. Though investigators are scrutinizing 15 employees in Cincinnati, all of whom work in the Tax Exempt and Government Entitites division under which much of the targeting of tea-party and other conservtive groups took place, investigators are also looking at computer data from two employees in El Monte, Calif., two in Baltimore, M.D., one in Laguna Niguel, Calif., and one in Sacramento, Calif. — all of whom process applications for tax exemption.

The broad sweep of the current investigation indicates that IRS agents nationwide were targeting conservative groups, which belies the explanation initially offered by the inspector general, the IRS, and the Obama administration that the targeting originated with a handful of “rogue” employees in the agency’s Cincinnati office. It also suggests that the orders for that targeting, or the approval for it, may have come from the top lawyer at the agency — an individual appointed by President Obama himself — or from one of his deputies.  

The question remains whether the White House itself ordered the agency to target Republican-leaning groups.

The Corner

The one and only.